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An unlikely awards season ended where it started.I had the pleasure of attending the first public screening of "Argo" at the Telluride Film Festival in September. Five months later, "Argo" pulled off a historical comeback to win the Best Picture prize many of us predicted it would take that sunny Labor day weekend. In the half a year between those moments, Hollywood managed to release six $100 million-plus-grossing best picture nominees (unthinkable at the beginning of the season) and make past controversies such as Melissa Leo's infamous for your consideration ads seem as inconsequential as a playground fight between two 5-year-olds. This season was serious and a battle of mammoth egos that won't long be forgotten. Thankfully, however, there are always lessons for pundits, studio executives, their likely still-stressed-out consultants and, most importantly, the powers at be at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Open up your books to page one, students, and let's review...
Politics is too nasty a game for Oscar
It's been a few years since the Best Picture race turned as nasty as this one did. Whether it was the bi-partisan criticism from U.S. Senators about the torture scenes in "Zero Dark Thirty," which conveniently occurred just as the film was getting traction (and from politicians who hadn't even seen the movie), and then (dear lord) an investigation into "Thirty's" access to the CIA (which amazingly ended the day after the Oscars), or anger from a Connecticut congressman over misrepresenting his state's votes for the 13th amendment in "Lincoln" or Canadians' continuing lack of satisfaction with how their contributions to "Argo" were depicted, the politics of Washington had way too much influence in the race. Most damaging was the press release, er, letter from Sen. Fienstein (D-CA) and Sen. McCain (R-AZ) that effectively scuttled "Thirty's" Best Picture hopes. "Lincoln" was already in trouble when its controversy started and most Canadians are rolling their eyes at anyone who thinks they didn't get enough credit in the eventual Best Picture winner. Nevertheless, scuttlebutt about competing campaigns being involved in each others' "issues" made the entire race feel like a presidential election instead of an artistic endeavor. Sadly, where there is smoke there is likely fire in many of the "he did this" "they did that" accusations, but bringing elected political officials into the mix was just ridiculous. They've got enough to fix in Washington rather than have their Hollywood donors drag them into this circus. Let's hope this isn't a sign of things to come.
Oscar's Best Director category may need some tweaking
In any awards situation there will always be someone on the outside looking in. The Best Picture field has already been expanded to up to 10 nominees (more on that later), but more than ever, too many deserving directors were left in the cold. In other years, Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and even Tom Hooper could have easily been nominated by their peers. Now, no one is saying there should be 10 nominees, but the ability to honor up to seven or eight seems like a fair compromise, no?
Don't release in December if you want to win
It's always somewhat cyclical, but the last Best Picture winner released in December was "Million Dollar Baby" almost 10 years ago. Yes, you can snag a nomination by debuting in December. History shows us, however, that the last six winners opened in June, September, October or November. At one point, revealing yourself to voters "last" was seen as a potentially winning strategy. Many other factors came into play this season, but "Zero Dark Thirty," "Les Miserables," "Django Unchained" and "The Impossible" arguably were harmed by the late dates. First, it can provide little time to battle any potential criticisms or controversies thrown against your film (see "Zero Dark Thirty"). Second, it hurts a film that really needs strong word of mouth within the industry (see "The Impossible"). So, unless you've got a box office slam dunk no matter what ("Les Miserables"), if you can't make a November date it may just make more sense to push to the following season.